Jan. 14, 2014
By Jenny Herstein, U-M Public & Media Relations
With a 71-70 win at Nebraska last Thursday (Jan. 9), Michigan improves to 3-0 in the Big Ten (11-4 overall). The Wolverines have been on a five-game winning streak, during which time they have averaged 72.8 points per game while shooting 51.4 percent from the field. In Big Ten play, Michigan has shot a conference best 53.5 percent from the field.
Michigan faces a difficult schedule this season with many of its game coming on the road. U-M and Nebraska are tied for the fewest home games among all Big Ten teams. Beginning conference play with a perfect 3-0 start, including two road wins at Minnesota and Nebraska, is thus an important confidence builder for the Wolverines.
"I think that we have a lot of confidence rolling right now," said sophomore tri-captain Glenn Robinson III. "The non-conference schedule didn't go as we planned, but I think we've gotten better each day in practice and we've been preparing really well. I think that we've stepped our energy up, and that comes a lot with confidence."
Against Minnesota and Nebraska, Michigan was able to pull out close wins, something head coach John Beilein attributes to the game's finer details.
"We could be 1-2 and be the exact same team -- somebody misses a foul shot, that ball gets tipped in at Nebraska -- and we're still the same team," said Beilein. "But we've got a little bounce in our step, and now, the detail we have to last second situations, to valuing every possession, they (the team) understand it now. It is a possession by possession game, and you can't take possessions off, offensively or defensively, or have bad turnovers, or a poor stance, or not be talking. They realize that this is a league now -- that there's going to be a lot of last minute games."
Robinson believes that the team's early success in the conference has been, in part, due to lessons learned from several close losses during the non-conference season -- especially on the road.
"I think that being in those situations before has helped," Robinson said. "We practiced those type of situations in practice almost every day."
In addition to giving Michigan a taste of hard fought games, the non-conference season also helped the Wolverines to become closer as a team.
"Believe it or not," said Robinson, "I think our Puerto Rico trip was what changed this team around -- what gave this team a lot of bonding experience. We didn't really know each other as well as we did after that trip."
"We have a couple inside jokes that we might say during a game just to make someone smile or laugh," he added. "That tends to loosen up everybody. Even down the stretch, I might say something just to get someone to smile or believe in themselves. I told the team at the end of the last game, in the huddle, 'I believe in all you guys, and we can do this,' just something like that just to loosen everybody up, especially with having one or two freshmen on the court."
Robinson has come out strong in Big Ten play. After missing most of the second half at Minnesota (Jan. 2) with an ankle injury, he has posted back-to-back double-figure scoring games with 12 against Northwestern and 19 at Nebraska, shooting 62.5 percent from the floor (14-for-25) in those two contests.
The sophomore forward believes that a change in his attitude has helped him to improve over the last few games.
"Talking to my old high school coach a couple weeks ago, he said: 'It doesn't look like you're having much fun,' or 'Just try to smile more and see if that helps,'" said Robinson. "I've been trying that. I'm just trying to have fun out there. I think that's when I tend to play my best basketball --when I'm angry or when I'm just having fun. I had a little bit of both last game, and it worked out well."
If close conference matchups come down to the small details, Michigan must continue to improve their ability to adapt to a variety of opponents. According to Beilein, the Big Ten's versatility makes defense particularly challenging.
"The big thing that a lot of people are still having trouble with is the ball screen defense. Every time we find a way to defend a ball screen, somebody else has something new to it," said Beilein. "I think a young team has to continue to grow, and we can't give up on our fundamentals."
"Something I like that we've been doing in practice is a lot of one-on-one drills, getting better in our gaps and personally guarding our own man," added Robinson. "That comes along with our scouting reports. That plays a big role in our defense. As far as the ball screens, we've been watching film and working on that. We never know what we're going to see. We're facing guys every night that can do different things off the ball screen."
Michigan now returns home for its eighth game at Crisler Center this season. The Wolverines will face Penn State, who enters Ann Arbor with a 9-8 record and a 0-4 Big Ten mark.
The Nittany Lions have lost five of their last six games, including their last four. However, three of PSU's losses have been by three or fewer points -- Princeton (81-79, OT, Dec. 14), Minnesota (68-65, Jan. 8), and Indiana (79-76, Jan. 11).
Five players are scoring in double figures for Penn State, led by 17.3 points per contest from D.J. Newbill, the sixth-best in the Big Ten, and 16.6 points per game from Tim Frazier, seventh-best in the conference. Together, the backcourt duo accounts for 44 percent of PSU's offense. The Nittany Lions are averaging 77.4 points per game, fourth-most in the league, but allowed 73.7 points per game, the most of any team in the Big Ten.
Tonight's (Jan. 14) game will be the only meeting of the season between Michigan and Penn State. Overall, U-M has a 29-12 record against PSU, including a 17-2 record in Ann Arbor.
Penn State has only won once in the last seven meetings between the two teams, in an 84-78 Wolverine loss at State College last season. Michigan's players remember that meeting as the season's major turning point.
"I definitely remember that being a tough defensive game for us," said Robinson. "We learned a lot as a team. I think that was the changing point for our season. The guys that were here last year all remember that game. We'll come ready to play. We'll have a lot of energy. I've been waiting for this game for a long time."
According to Beilein, the lessons learned from last season's loss were much the same as the lessons Michigan has learned this season from its close games in Big Ten play: details matter.
"There's so many small details, that little things will matter in a game," said Beilein. "(Last year against Penn State) I think we shot poorly from the foul line. We had some sloppy turnovers against their press. It's just a sense of valuing that you can lose any game. Some of the action they ran wasn't even in the scouting report. It was something new or we missed it.
"But, you still can stop that if maybe you're paying more attention to your foul shooting in practice, maybe you have less turnovers. We gave them the ball or we took bad shots two or three times. Now, you lose that game, all that stuff comes back in, and you say, 'Okay. We couldn't stop (former Penn State player Jermaine Marshall's) 6-for-10, but we could have stopped this, this, and this.' And that's what you learn."